Study shows digital divide emerging in Congress, GOP leads with best websites

Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s (R-Alaska) website ranked first in the Senate while Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.) beat out fellow lawmakers in the House, according to a report released by the non-partisan Congressional Management Foundation (CMF) on Wednesday.

The top leadership website belonged to the House Republican Conference Chairman Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) and Chairman Rep. Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.) had the best committee site with his House Committee on Science and Technology.

The so-called fifth annual Gold Mouse Report was released Wednesday by CMF. The study assesses the quality of 620 congressional websites of members, committees, and leadership offices and attached a letter grade to each based on its performance.

The most common grades given were “A’s” and “F’s,” with 22 percent of offices earning one or the other, signaling that congressional websites are either on a fast track of improvement or they are getting left in the technological dust with each evolvement of web design.

“Overall, we found the good sites are getting better and the bad are getting worse,” said Beverly Bell, executive director of CMF.

“It looks like half of the Congress is racing to the top while the other half race to the bottom.  The outstanding sites follow best practices, leverage the power of social media, and serve their constituents well.  Those offices falling behind are losing a great opportunity to interact with their constituents in ways the public has grown to expect.”

The CMF report graded websites based on how effectively they combined: knowing their audience, providing timely and targeted content, ease of use, fostering interaction both on and offline, and adding value through innovation.

Overall, Republicans outdid Democrats, with 62 percent of Republicans earning a “C” or above, compared to only 54 percent of the websites belonging to Democrats.

Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) heralded the findings on Wednesday, saying that they are “dominating” Democrats when it comes to new media technology.

Pence attributed the GOP’s performance to the “high quality work of our members and our staff.”

But the divide between the chambers was even greater than that between the parties. The most common letter grade in the Senate was an “A” compared to an “F” in the House.

Thirty-four percent of the Senate websites received “A’s,” which was a 10 percent increase from 3 years ago. By comparison, only 19 percent of House websites got “A’s.”

Committee Web sites showed the most dramatic improvement with 93 percent scoring a “C” or better compared. In 2007, only 65 percent of committee sites achieved this ranking.

Other factors that the CMF looked at included the quality and tone of the information presented on the website, the usability and navigability of the site, the website’s “look and feel,” and the degree to which the information meets visitor’s needs.

“For many of my constituents, my website is their gateway to Washington,” said the top House award-winner, Rep. Steve Israel. “That’s why I work hard to make sure that it’s transparent, accessible and informative.”

Overall the report made it clear that there’s still a long way to go, as it discovered some significant flaws in the congressional websites it reviewed.

Two-thirds of the 620 websites, lacked “guidance on how best to communicate with their office.” And nearly half of the websites provided “no guidance on how citizens can get assistance with issues with federal agencies” and lacked “access to a full accounting of the member’s voting record.”

Amazingly, more than 100 congressional websites still don’t have a functional search engine.

For the first time, CMF examined the adoption of social networking tools onto the websites. The report found that only 21 percent of member offices had links to their Facebook profiles from their congressional website, while 18 percent of member offices linked to a Twitter account.

CMF has studied congressional Web sites since 1998, producing four previous reports starting in 2002.  Only Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.), whose district covers much of the Silicon Valley, has received awards in all five evaluations.